Interview with Chet Bowling: Business and Racism in Russia

Published: August 31, 2010

Chet Bowling holds an MA in Law from the Russian People’s Friendship University in Russia and an MBA from Kingston University in the United Kingdom. He co-founded Alinga Consulting Group, a business providing accounting, legal, and audit services mostly to foreign firms. He has lived in Russia for nearly nineteen years, where he is now married and raising a son.

Chet Bowling posing at his office in Moscow.
Chet Bowling posing at his office in Moscow.

SRAS:  What is your ethnic background and what first brought you to Russia?

Chet Bowling: I was born in Guyana, South America. Guyana is a former British colony that is populated primarily with people of East Indian and African decent. However there are some people of Amerindian, Chinese and Portuguese decent that live there. My mom is of Portuguese decent and my father – African. When I am asked about my ethnicity I say I am black.

I first came to Russia from Guyana to study law at the Friendship University in October 1991. This university was set up in the Soviet times to train third-world students in an effort to export the “Soviet system” and provide much needed training to underdeveloped countries. As result about 30-40% of the students were from all over the world providing me with a wonderful opportunity to gain insight into different cultures and ethnicities including African, Arab, Indian, and Latin American in addition to the cultures and ethnicities of the then-Soviet-Union that surrounded me.

SRAS: How did you learn of, apply to, and get accepted to your university? Did you know Russian before you arrived? 

CB: As far back as I remember I always wanted to become a lawyer…. “someone who understands the law is better equipped to live in society” …as I wrote in my entry essay to the university. So when the scholarship to come to Russia to study law was advertized, I applied. There was a selection process at home that took into account my high school qualifications, the fact that I did one year in university at home studying history as a pre-law qualification as well as the results of various interviews. As mentioned there was also an essay writing test which was sent to the Russian university. When I got to Russia there were four or five exams which I had to take including history and general knowledge. All of this was done in English; I did not know any Russian when I got here and was placed in the preparatory faculty – known as “pod-fak” in the Russian system– where I spent a year learning the language. I was accepted and graduated with excellence.

SRAS: That must have been a very intensive language course. Can you describe what it was like – and did you feel that you were really able to fully participate in your subject classes when you started them after that year of preparation?

Chet Bowling poses outside the Peoples' Freindship University in 1992.
Chet Bowling posing outside the Peoples’ Friendship University in 1992.

CB: The one year course was well thought out. The first semester was basic Russian with lots of homework and study on Saturdays. The second semester was geared toward future studies – history, law, geography in simple Russian.

Of course the best “classes” were on the street and in the “magazin” (store) where you had to speak up to ensure you got the correct “sdacha” (change) after a purchase.

All this did not prepare me for the first semester of real lectures with Russian students… I was in a panic for the first day or two but then I thought “all the foreigners before me did it and so can I.” By the end of the first semester I was pretty comfortable… taking notes and all.

SRAS: Did you face any difficulties in trying to start a career in Russia as a foreigner? Did you feel like you were treated as an “outsider?”

CB: No. Although I did not have a “typical” start in my career as I worked with friends who knew and trusted me — they ran a boutique financial brokerage firm serving private American and European investors investing in the nascent Russian stock market. During school I worked for the first Mexican restaurant in Russia and my South American background made me a sort-of “insider” for the job.

SRAS: You’ve now been Managing Partner at Alinga Consulting Group for ten years, a company which specializes in services for both Russian and foreign businesses established in Russia. How did you come to open that business?

CB: I began seeing Moscow as a long-term opportunity in the early 90s, when I was working in that upscale Mexican Restaurant, where Moscow’s business elite came to dine and I could see that business opportunities were opening up. As I was completing my studies in the mid 1990s, I went to work for my friends at KRES FB, the boutique financial brokerage firm. After the crisis in ’98, when investors became timid, I started an MBA at Kingston University in the UK. I completed the degree in 2000, just as investors were starting to return and to invest in the real economy as opposed to the stock market. Seeing this, I – along with my partners – saw that these investors needed legal and accounting advice to help navigate their business activity. We began Alinga Consulting to provide legal and accounting services – and we’ve since added audit to the lineup as well – and to provide these services with the level of customer service and support that we know Western customers expect.

SRAS: Do you think that it is easier for foreign businesses to establish themselves in Russia compared to ten years ago?

CB: It is certainly easier. The time it is takes to set up a business has gone down considerably since the late 90s and early 2000s. It used to take about three to five months to register a business; now three weeks is usually enough. The time needed to get a work permit has also become much shorter (moving from a six months to two and a half). However, the rules have become less transparent and are constantly changing. This is still a major problem.

Since the early 2000s, as Russia has become more integrated into the world economy and a younger generation has entered the work force, Russian professionals have become attuned to what “international standards of service” means. In addition, it is generally easier to find local staff with foreign language skills in addition to international accounting, audit, and/or legal qualifications. For example, in one recent case, a potential client insisted that the auditors working on a financial due diligence project would need ACCAqualifications. The ACCA is an international organization for accountants. A few years ago we would have had to rely on expensive outside consultants, but we now have staff with these qualifications working for us.

SRAS: Have you ever had difficulties with the police or on the street that you feel may have been caused in part by your ethnic background?

CB: Unfortunately yes… and of course the primary reason is to solicit a bribe. Even today my heart rate increases every time I see a policeman coming my way. One interesting observation is that apart from the color of your skin, your appearance and the way you dress plays a part – I have never been stopped when I am dressed in a suit and tie.

SRAS: Have you ever felt physically threatened by the police or others because of your ethnicity?

CB: With regard to the police, as mentioned they gravitate to you if you look different and I remember getting pushed around a bit once because I was taking my time with my docs and giving him a hard time. I wound up walking away from that one, though.

Chet (bottom left) pictured with some of the now more than 50 Russians and foreigners that he manages at Alinga.
Chet (bottom left) with some of the now more than 50 Russians and foreigners he manages.

I was once pulled off the seat in a-near empty subway train by a drunken guy “so that the women can sit down.” The same women, who were at the door to get off at the next stop, shouted at him to leave me alone and he eventually did. Also got a knife pulled on me once by some youngsters while on the bus. I was fortunate to get off just before the doors closed and left them inside. There were quite a few instances of name calling over the years as well.

SRAS: You’ve lived in Russia for 18 years now – would you say that Russian society has become more or less diverse during this time? Has it become more or less tolerant?

CB: More diverse – I increasingly see more mixed race children on the street which brings a smile to my face. On the issue of tolerance I think the situation is more or less the same… a small minority of Russians are still pro-actively racist. The guy who took me out of my seat on the metro was surely motivated by racism when he did that.

SRAS: If you learned that someone else from your country was hoping to enter Russia, complete a degree and start a business, what would your advice to that person be?

CB: Study hard; work hard; be outgoing and meet as many people as possible. Enjoy the positive things about Russia and learn to deal with the negative ones.

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About the author

Josh Wilson

Josh Wilson is the Assistant Director for SRAS. He has been managing publications and informative websites covering geopolitics, history, business, economy, and politics in Eurasia since 2003. He is based in Moscow, Russia. For SRAS, he also assists in program development and leads the Home and Abroad Programs

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